“Come on, Cooper!” Tobias laughed, the stocky African American egging him on. “I did it, so can you! Stop standing there and go!”
“Fine, fine!” Cooper conceded, gripping the rope tightly. Looking out over the expansive lake, surrounded by a line of thick evergreens even on the farthest shores, Cooper gave the rope a couple more tugs to make sure the branch securing it would hold. “Alright, look out below!” he cried, backing up a few steps from the small cliff before charging forward, rope in hand. Swinging out over the water, he let go of the rope, plunging into the deep.
Once he felt himself slow to a stop, he opened his hazelnut eyes to search for the surface… only to be greeted by nothingness. “Huh?” he thought, looking around at the utter black void he had just thrown himself into. Confused, Cooper blinked a couple of times before the murky pond water appeared in place of the pure darkness he had been in before. Shaking his head, he felt a burning sensation in his lungs: his cells begging for air. He quickly stroked upwards for the surface, bringing his head above the water, coughing and sputtering in his attempt to breathe once more.
“Are you okay, Coop?” Tobias asked, swimming over to his friend.
“Y-yeah… I think so,” he answered honestly, catching his breath as he tread water.
“Let’s go ahead and head back,” Tobias suggested, clearly concerned.
“Okay, just… wait a moment,” Cooper insisted, holding up a pointer finger to his friend. Making sure to get a deep breath, Cooper plunged back down into the water, opening his eyes once more. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Murky water, rocks, and Tobias’ kicking legs greeted his vision. There was no sign of the darkness he had encountered before. Content with this, he headed back up, shaking the water out of his straw-colored hair.
“See something?” Tobias asked, his head cocked slightly to the side.
“Well, I thought so. I guess not,” Cooper answered, the words not feeling quite right in his mouth. Shaking the thought from his mind, he pushed Tobias back away from him and bolted for the rocky shoreline they had jumped off from. “C’mon! I’ll race you back to the house!” he cried.
“Hey, no fair!” Tobias laughed in response, chugging along after him. Of the two of them, Cooper was definitely the better swimmer, so it was no surprise to him when he reached the shore first. It didn’t hurt that he had gotten a head start either.
Pausing for a split second to see Tobias paddling towards him, Cooper scrambled up the rocks as fast as he could - with bare feet, at least - and started making his way towards the lakeside cabin. Neither Cooper’s family nor Tobias’ could have afforded the trip up to Michigan alone, so both families had decided to share the place and split the price. The Crawshanks were nice enough, so Cooper was more than happy to have them come along. After all, he would have been lonely had he not had Tobias with him. Cooper was an only child, so it was a nice change of pace to have someone who would also be going into high school after this summer with him on the trip.
Cooper was about halfway to the cabin when he tripped on an upturned root. Taking the full impact on his bare shoulder, he rolled over and came to a stop, lying on the forest floor.
“Ow…” he groaned, clutching his shoulder. Sitting up, he quickly brushed off the dirt and started to rub his shoulder. Thankfully it wasn’t broken or anything, just sore from the impact for now. It’d definitely bruise a bit, but he didn’t care about that for the moment. What grabbed his attention more was the small kid that was wandering around in the distance.
“What the...” Cooper thought aloud in a whisper. The little one, quite a fair distance away from him, seemed to be a boy of about five years of age. His blue jeans and green shirt looked worn and dirty, although he seemed to be wearing a gray long-sleeved shirt underneath. That struck Cooper as being very odd, considering the warm summer weather. Another thing that occurred to him was that the little boy was crying very visibly, his mouth gaping wide open. As his little hands ineffectively tried wiping away his tears, the teenager watched as the boy’s warm, visible breath escaped his mouth, which doubled his curiosity. There was no way that he should be able to see a child’s breath in this heat! The boy trudged onwards, taking small, tired steps, making it clear that he had been walking for a decent amount of time. In spite of all that he was seeing, Cooper couldn’t hear a sound. There was no noise coming from the boy’s direction. It was completely silent. It was… it was almost as if-
“Ha!” Tobias yelled, jogging past Cooper. “Looks like I’ll win for once!”
“Huh?!” Cooper jumped, having completely forgotten about the race. Seeing his friend jog heavily towards their shared temporary abode, Cooper turned back around to look for the child, but… he was gone. No sight of the child, no motion in the nearby overgrowth, and still no sound. He had to be seeing things. Maybe he’d hit his head when he fell down. Maybe he’d taken in too much lake water earlier. Maybe the ghost boy was really there… taking his turn to watch him. Either way, Cooper only knew one thing for sure: Tobias was winning the race.
Grunting, he pushed himself back up onto his feet and ran for it, making sure to watch for roots this time. However, it wasn’t enough. As he climbed up the stairs of the deck, he could see Tobias standing victorious by the door - or rather, hunched over and breathing deeply - but victorious nonetheless.
“Looks like… I win… Coop,” Tobias breathed, doubled over with his hands on his knees.
“Yeah, guess so,” Cooper chuckled, patting his husky friend on the back. “C’mon, let’s get inside and- oh, dude! We forgot our towels back there!”
“Aw… f’real?” Tobias sighed, straightening up now that he was starting to catch his breath.
“Yeah… Eh, no worries. I’ll go get them,” Cooper nodded, jumping off the steps and jogging back in the direction they came from. “Just stay out here until I’m back, okay?”
“It’s not like I can stroll in all wet! Momma’d kill me! And Mrs. Weston’d bury the body!” Tobias half-yelled back, watching his friend go.
He laughed and shook his head at that. It seemed like this had been quite the lucky break for Cooper. Sure, they’d been dumb and left their towels, but it gave him an excuse to look for the ghost boy again. Once he was out of Tobias’ sight, he slowed down to a walk, carefully looking around for any sight of him. But amidst all the trees, tall grass, and bushes in the path’s vicinity, he saw absolutely no sight of the boy from before. Even as he reached the place where he tripped and fell, nary a small cry had been heard.
“Maybe I really did imagine him,” Cooper muttered to himself, his eyes ever vigilant for information to contradict his statement. “It seemed so real, though…”
Everything remained the same as he reached the ledge where he and Tobias had been hanging out. The rope was still attached to the branch, the water rippled and splashed up against the rocks… but the towels were nowhere to be seen. Groaning, Cooper started the search for the missing towels. He could’ve sworn that they had left them by the swinging rope tree’s base, but they weren’t there.
“Where in the world…” Cooper trailed off, scratching his head. “First disappearing children, now disappearing towels. What’s next?”
Try as he might, Cooper couldn’t locate the towels anywhere. He didn’t think anyone else was supposed to be near the cabin – as far as he knew, they had been one of the few groups to rent out a cabin in this area – but then again, there had been that strange boy from before. Maybe he had stolen them. Shrugging it off, Cooper slowly made his way back over to the cabin, determined not to trip over any more roots for the day. Besides, if nothing else, they could drip-dry.
As he got close to the cabin, Cooper yelled out, “I couldn’t find the towels, Tobias. I’m not sure where-“. He stopped in his tracks, confused at the sight in front of him.
“There you are, Coop!” Tobias sighed, his green- and yellow-striped towel wrapped around his body. Meanwhile, Cooper’s plain red towel hung over the deck railing. “Why’d you run off like that? Did you leave something back there?”
“I… uh…” Cooper tried to respond, but he wasn’t sure what to say to this. Tobias wasn’t one for pulling pranks, so he doubted that was the case. But how else did their towels get here? It wasn’t like they could move on their own. “No, I don’t think I did.”
“Well don’t just stand there, man, hurry up and dry off. Ma’s almost got dinner ready.” With that, Tobias opened the door to the two-story log cabin and went inside, leaving Cooper alone with his towel and his thoughts.